BY DENNIS CHASE, BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Forget the fact Mancelona's won 24 regular season games in a row.
Forget the fact the Ironmen (7-0) will be overwhelming favorites to close out the regular season with wins over Forest Area (1-6) and Inland Lakes (3-4).
That's nice. But what's more important to Mancelona football coach Dan Derrer is that his players keep striving to improve.
"We can't worry about who we're playing," Derrer said. "I don't care if they've got six wins or one win, we need to focus on us — on getting better each week. I don't care about the score. I just want us to get better."
Mancelona is one of four unbeaten teams in the Grand Traverse region. Northwest Conference champion Glen Lake and Lake Michigan Conference co-leaders Grayling and Boyne City are the others.
Boyne City and Glen Lake have the toughest tasks the next two games. The Ramblers travel to upset-minded Elk Rapids tonight — the Elks are a good 4-3 team — and then host Grayling in the regular season finale.
Glen Lake hosts perennial power St. Francis tonight, then finishes on the road at improving North Muskegon (4-3).
Mancelona's last regular season loss came in the 2010 season opener to Elk Rapids. That Elks team ran the table in the regular season.
"We have some talented kids, who work hard and play well together," Derrer said. "They don't care about individual stats. They just want to win.
"They've always been that way. They've been successful at every level, starting in Pop Warner. These seniors, I think, were undefeated in middle school. They did not lose a game on JV. So far, they haven't lost a regular season game since they've been on varsity, either.
"A lot of them played on the baseball team that went to the Final Four (last spring). It's a good group."
Although the Ironmen will be heavily favored to stretch their streak to 26 games, Derrer said there is still a lot at stake, namely playoff points.
"These games are very important," he said. "It looks like we're going to be in the same district with Ishpeming. As of right now, we've moved ahead of them in points, but just by a little. To stay there, we are going to need a few things to happen."
Mancelona has reached the district finals the last two seasons, but came away empty-handed both times.
"It's been a goal of ours all along to win a district," Derrer said. "We're just trying to get over that hump."
Grayling is looking for its first unbeaten regular season in school history. League rival Boyne City is seeking its first since 2001. Since they play next week, only one has a chance to end that streak.
Grayling faces East Jordan (0-7) tonight before the finale at Boyne City.
"The town's talking about that, my friends are calling me up and saying things (about it), but for us, we have to stay focused," Vikings coach Tim Sanchez said of the showdown with the Ramblers. "It's homecoming week for us, so we're already battling staying focused with those distractions. East Jordan, they haven't won a game yet, but they've got some athletes. Of all the teams they've played all year, we're the team they match up well against. They run the same offense as we do, so they see it every day in practice. We know we're going to have to stay on top of our game to execute (tonight)."
Grayling was in a similar position last year, heading into Week 9 with an 8-0 record. However, the Vikings were turned back with a 20-19 loss to St. Francis.
With so many seniors on last year's squad, making another run at an unbeaten regular season wasn't the mindset at the start of the year.
"Every year your goal is to win every game, but with this crew, we were so young that we literally were taking it one game at a time, one practice at a time to get better," Sanchez said. "Now, that looks like a goal for us, but at the beginning of the year, it was just to beat Roscommon. And then to beat Houghton Lake."
Like Boyne City, Glen Lake is seeking its first unbeaten regular season since 2001.
Last week's 15-12 win over Frankfort brought that to coach Jerry Angers attention. The last time the Lakers had beaten Frankfort was 2001.
"Everything goes back to 2001," Angers said. "I was talking to (former Lakers coach) Bill Hollenbeck the other day. Bill built that program and I'm hoping we can do as much with it as he did. Eventually, I hope we can get to where his teams were. It's been a good measuring stick for us. We've looked at what they did and we're trying to mirror it."
As it turns out, Glen Lake's schedule was backloaded this season. The Lakers first five opponents are a combined 4-31. Then came Kingsley and Frankfort, and now St. Francis and North Muskegon.
"We knew the last four were going to be a war," Angers said. "Hey, what better way to get ready for the playoffs."
Angers attributes his team's success to teamwork.
"Everybody believes in the system as well as each other," he said. "We don't have any one kid standing tall. They continue to work together because they have a common goal. That's to win football games."